Monday, January 25, 2016

Saturday: Atlanta Adventures, Bus Bummers, and Vestavia Hills

Hello from the other side…of the continental United States! The University Chorale sends you greetings from the Sunshine State! We find ourselves again delayed (I’ll explain later), but nonetheless enjoying the sun outside our windows, and using the time to converse with each other, laugh, be silly, and everything else that you do when traveling with 42 nomadic singers far from their native territory exploring the “whole new world” of the Southern USA…including catching up on the blog! After all, this writer is currently in shorts and a t-shirt, so I’m not going to dare to complain. Here’s our recap:

When you last heard from University Chorale, we were in John’s Creek, Alabama, saying farewell to our first home-stay families of the tour, and looking forward to a fun afternoon in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Our first stop in the city would be the World of Coca Cola – a very “Georgia” thing to do, as the beverage was invented in Georgia (though this is highly disputed among Cola conspiracy theorists…), and the company’s headquarters is in Atlanta. The inclement weather (i.e. cold) caused the World to open at 11am, later than its usual Saturday hours, though Chorale wasn’t too disappointed by this – we got an extra hour to sleep, to enjoy breakfast, and to socialize with our wonderful host families.

Upon arriving at the World of Coca Cola, we exited the bus to a very brisk and biting air. With a complimentary Coca Cola in our hands, we explored the exciting exhibit, learning lots about the world’s greatest drink (or so we were told) from the Coca Cola enthusiasts and interactive displays. Some highlights included a trip into the top-secret, super-classified, magical vault (We were highly misled; despite many promises, no one got to lay an eye on the classified Coca Cola formula that few have seen - or lived to tell of), and the chance to sample one hundred different flavors of Coca Cola. Admittedly, my favorite pastime was keeping a lookout for the seven-foot tall polar bear mascot roaming around the building, surprising innocent bystanders and coercing them into a photo, sure to reappear in my darkest nightmares. (Shudder.)

We wandered in clusters around the fascinating building and planned our next adventures, as we had until 2:30 to explore this corner of Atlanta. Well, 2:30 was the original plan. A notification from Dr. Galante let us know our fate had changed yet again – the unexpected below 30 weather had caused the compression lines on our beloved bus to freeze. We needed a new bus. At 3:30, Dr. Galante told us, we would all meet back at Bus One, and transfer luggage onto the fully functioning and on-time Bus Two. (That was the idea, at least.)

The hour delay may have spurred a little anxiety regarding the evening’s concert at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama: it was a two and a half hour drive away, and rehearsal was to follow. The later we arrived, the less time we had to rehearse. Fortunately, switching from the Eastern time-zone to the Central time-zone as we traveled from Atlanta to Birmingham would give us an hour back. An hour lost, an hour gained, we figured. It would be alright.

And in the meantime, we found ourselves in a great place to have a few hours to spend! Surrounding the World of Coca Cola is Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia Aquarium (rumored to be one of the best in the country), the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the CNN headquarters just a half-mile away. It’s a happening place.

Actually getting to these places proved to be more of an obstacle than expected. Though we merely needed to cross the street or walk a couple blocks at most, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with gusts of wind so strong it was hard to walk in a straight line.  With our hair whipping around in our faces, ears beet-red, and teeth-chattering, we couldn’t help but laugh at our stark unpreparedness for the day. We’d left the gloves and hats at home; this wasn’t quite the weather we’d expected.

After braving the unwelcoming outdoors, the Chorale found itself exploring and enjoying the surroundings. Many of us got lunch at CNN, which was absolutely packed at the peak lunchtime hour. Some of us sat on the floor with our food, criss-cross-applesauce style in the grand atrium of the impressive building (there were no available tables) and had a sort of indoor picnic. A few of us forked over the cash to tour the Cable News Network headquarters. Others visited sea-lions, otters, dolphins, beluga whales, and penguins at the aquarium, later raving about the cuteness of the animals, the greatness of the building, and the giant food court. A couple social justice enthusiasts even toured the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Faced with another delay, we adopted a “carpe diem” mentality! (Certainly this sounds nobler than the more honest mindset: “Less time to rehearse, more time for penguins. Woot woot!”)

At 3:30 we congregated at dear old Bus One, and awaited the promised Bus Two. 3:30. 3:35. 3:40. A white bus pulled up in front of ours. We exited Bus One and removed our luggage. The white bus was not our bus. We got back on Bus One. The mythical Bus Two was said to be close. We exited again to ensure a quick departure. We huddled and squirmed and jumped up and down in the chilly weather.

Just as our hope began to dwindle, the long-awaited and prophesied Bus Two turned the corner and found us on Baker Street. At 4:10 we left downtown Atlanta. Our rehearsal time had shrunk to a worrisome half-hour time slot. But at least we had Bus Two now. There was nothing wrong with Bus Two.

…Or so we thought. Bus Two, it turns out, was eager to assist us in tossing the original schedule out the window and returning home with stories of spontaneity, close-calls, and winging it. Bus Two was freezing. Shortly after our Atlanta departure, we stopped at a Love’s truck station to fill up on fuel and try to fix the heater. As we pulled to a stop and checked the clock with anxious faces, Dr. Galante faced us from the front of the bus: “Ten minutes,” he said, half-smiling, half-grimacing. “Ten minutes to use the restroom. Ten. Minutes. No later.” He gravely munched on the happy pills that are peanut M&M’s.

Eleven minutes later we left the fuel station, en route to Vestavia Hills – this time for real. Originally expecting a 4:30pm arrival, we arrived in the beautiful community at about 6pm. The church rests upon Shades Mountain and overlooks Birmingham, though all we could see by the time we arrived were the twinkling lights of a busy city.

Vestavia Hills’ congregation members welcomed us with a delicious Greek dinner of pasta, salad, and pita chips, and also provided some snacks and Birmingham-themed goody bags. We hurriedly ate our meal and rushed into the sanctuary for a very condensed “rehearsal.” The lack of thorough preparation had the Chorale a little nervous as we stood in front of a fair-sized audience. But despite our tenuous circumstances, the concert was quite beautiful. Our a cappella song, “Butterfly,” was, I think, particularly special. Dr. Galante will sometimes, without forewarning, walk away and cease to conduct us after he gives us a few downbeats. This was one of those times. At first, we got a little nervous and fell out of tempo for a moment – and then, realizing that the only way we could sing this song well would be if it was sung together, we engaged with each other. We looked each other in the eye, and we found one unifying rhythm. We swayed back and forth and smiled. We had a beautiful musical conversation.

Following “Butterfly” was our spiritual, “I Can Tell the World.” You can imagine it was well received in a Birmingham Baptist church. Simply put, we were grooving.

When the last note was sung, we smiled at our kind audience, every single person on their feet to give us a standing ovation. Though it was a concert not preceded by an organized rehearsal, it was still enjoyed – not only by the audience, but by the singers, too. And I believe there was a collective realization that we were ready for that concert; we had it in us. If we really tried, if we were mindful and musical and focused, if we breathed together and sang together, we could leave behind a memorial of beauty.

Following the concert, we went our separate ways to our homestays with friendly audience members. We looked forward to reuniting in the morning to attend Sunday worship at 10am, excited to see what the next day had in store for us…

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